Bureaucrats aren't terribly fond of employees who go behind their backs and over their heads to expose waste, fraud, corruption, or just plain incompetence. That's why there are laws in place that are supposed to protect government whistleblowers from retaliation. But according to Representative Mike Coffman, the Department of Veteran Affairs has become so adept at ignoring those laws that the agency has what amounts to "an informal policy" of responding to internal complaints by circling the wagons and crushing the complainers.
Like several other members of Congress, Coffman has frequently savaged the VA over bad management and ineptitude that have produced a series of scandals and blunders, including the billion-dollar-plus cost overruns at the agency's new hospital in Aurora. But by delving into the eastern Colorado regional office's alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, the congressman may have hit upon the one thing that the VA is really good at.
Earlier this week, Coffman sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald expressing his concerns about the local office's response to five female employees who complained about sexual harassment by a male nurse at an Aurora outpatient clinic. As we first reported in a cover story back in January, "Tell No One," the women say they've suffered retaliation from administrators, including punitive job assignments and "interrogations" in which they've been pressured to change their stories. Two of them, who worked for a subcontractor, were removed from their jobs entirely. Months after the alleged perp resigned, the VA's investigation of the matter was still dragging on — and seemed to be directed at silencing the victims.
One of the whistleblowers, Debora Casados, was moved from nursing duties to scanning documents in a windowless basement office. In April, the VA agreed to a request from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to return Casados to her regular duties at another clinic. But the agency seems to be adamant about fighting the employees' demands for an end to retaliation and monetary compensation.
"It is clear that the agency still has a long way to go to combat a persistent culture of retaliation and a general lack of accountability for managers who continue to undermine the law and VA policy," Coffman wrote in his letter to McDonald. "It recently came to my attention that the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System may have an informal policy to not enter into monetary settlements with whistleblowers so as to avoid review by VA's Office of Accountability Review."
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If Coffman is correct, such a policy would have its own kind of eerie, Bizarro World, VA-like logic to it. When somebody starts investigating you for punishing whistleblowers, you do everything you can to avoid resolving the issue with the whistleblowers in order to...keep from being investigated some more!
Coffman has yet to hear back from McDonald. (The relationship between the two men has been a bit strained since Coffman quipped during a June radio interview that the VA should take over ISIS and inflict its incompetence on America's enemies for a change.) The VA did send a response of sorts to the Denver Post, insisting that "retaliation against whistleblowers is not tolerated" at the VA.
As for the alleged informal policy, the best evidence of whether it exists or not may emerge in the efforts by the women and their attorney to resolve their claims through mediation or court. Stay tuned.